"In between each impression, at the moment when one person falls away and the next has yet to take possession, the Impressionist is completely blank. He becomes these other people so completely that nothing of his own is visible."
Epic in scenario and sweeping in scope, Hari Kunzru's distinguished debut plots the bizarre journey of the man who becomes the Impressionist as he assumes the mantle of many identities, shape-shifting for survival. The protagonist is a chameleon-like figure who eschews the need for home and identity, virtually transforming himself into a set of characters to suit his changing backdrop, which spans the globe --- from the teeming streets of Bombay to Edwardian England to the sun-scorched deserts of Africa. Kunzru's novel is set at a historical crossroads, pitting brazen British pride against the burgeoning independence movement in India and serving as a touchstone for the protagonist's complex racial and ethnic identity.
The Impressionist's first incarnation is Pran Nath Razdan, a spoiled teenager raised in the lap of luxury down-river from the Taj Mahal. One of the servants, however, harbors the secret of his true parentage. When it's revealed that Pran Nath is actually the son of an Englishman but passed off as his privileged father's progeny, he is unceremoniously tossed out into the street to fend for himself.
Eventually Pran Nath becomes Rukhsana, a creature of sexual servitude who reads the boundaries between male and female. In this role, he's forced to be the pawn in a dangerous colonial game of a depraved British General who refers to him as Clive. Rukhsana escapes and lands in Bombay, where he assumes the double identity of Robert, dutiful adoptive son of a Scottish missionary couple, and Pretty Bobby, errand boy and occasional pimp to the cohorts of the city's most notorious district.
As political unrest roils the country, the Impressionist gets a hold of a British passport through circuitous circumstances and transforms himself into Jonathan Bridegeman, a wealthy young heir. Back in London and later at Oxford, Jonathan perfects his Englishness to a fault. Eventually, he embarks on a hopeless anthropological expedition to Africa and there experiences a rebirth.
The protagonist is a tabula rasa, wiping the slate clean over and over as to assume his new identity so completely that not a trace of the old one is left. As a result, the main character comes across as relatively unsympathetic and shallow, lying to those around him and even himself as he fashions an entirely new identity to suit his desires. The Impressionist mines stereotypes and is a keen observer, gifted at mimicry. As he uses people, so people use him, and you somehow feel that his foibles and stumblings are as deserved as the success born out of his cunning. Kunzru's embroidered prose, urbane wit, and masterful storytelling captivate the reader and exhibit a sophistication not usually found in a debut. His novel is as multilayered and complex as the lead character himself.
Kunzru's lush, evocative story works on several different levels --- raising questions as to what it means to be black or white, Indian or English. Set against India's independence movement, THE IMPRESSIONIST also examines an individual's place in society and the personal and political ramifications for adopting or challenging the status quo. But Kunzru's characters aren't merely vehicles for exploring deeper notions of race and ethnicity, rather, they're luminous and richly drawn, often in possession of an individual depth that breathes life into this lavish, engaging read.
The story could be considered a series of vignettes of different characters, all loosely connected together by the Impressionist's will to survive and meld into whatever world he finds himself in --- whether that's the stifling academia of Oxford or the decadence of a jazz club in Paris. Kunzru is an immensely talented writer, spinning a story with rich language and exotic locales, and this noteworthy debut secures his place among the UK's best new writers.
Reviewed by Jen Robbins on January 22, 2011